Journey to the Edge
"Easy there. You have quite the nasty knock there, Pumpkin."
Stirring from her dazed state and looking through powder mist as her brain cleared of powered frost and fog. She said the first thing which came to her mind, "For saying name's Pickle, not Pumpkin."
"Well, whatever it is, you still took quite a fine tumble onto our resident grump. I want you to be careful there. Sit up slowly okay? You seem mostly fine. But well, always got to be careful with a head injury."
Slowly the icy mist cleared from her brain as the sensation of cold wood underneath her sunk in. A chilling autumnal breeze on her face as she sat up washed away the last vestiges of the fog clearing from her mind. She looked around through eyes still blurred and swimming. A flash of red moved across her vision. The girl, no, the lady who had been running with Scraps along the platform. Moments before she fell then jumped and fell on top of Malcolm.
Pickle groaned internally, "What a fucking arsehole. Sorry, not you. Who you?" The question came out in stutters. Instead of responding, the lady leant forward, putting the back of her hand on Pickle's forehead, holding it there and then moving it to her cheek without ceremony. Pausing the motion both times till the strange lady was satisfied in her inspection.
"You can call me Doc."
"Oh hi Doc, I'm Pickle."
"We covered that."
Pickle found her embarrassment refreshed, wondering if her concussion had driven her into fatal foolhood. Blushing, she never blushed. Looking down at the floor she found herself running her hand into the back of her neck, ruffling her hair and looking down at her lap. Feeling for a bump and searching for the words, her hand ruffled the top of her hair... her dusty dirty brown hair. Dusty hair?
WHERE WAS HER HELMET!
Quickly covering her ear with her hand feeling its pointed tip, she firmly held her hand in place. Where was her helmet? Her vision was still foggy. Glancing around for it, she decided to try to play it cool. "We arse helmet?" Damn it.
"Oh, just here," small hands holding it out towards her, "I had to remove it to check your scalp. No bleeding but you can never be too safe."
"Thanks," she quickly grabbed the helmet and secured it on her head and pulled the chin strap tight. With it back on, she felt her senses returning to her.
"Truth be told, it probably saved you from a serious injury."
"Yeah, that's why I was wearing it." She lied through gritted teeth.
"My name is Sarah, by the way. I am the doctor of this company. But yeah, most people call me Doc."
"Thanks, Sarah. Much appreciated. Is Malcolm okay?"
"That old cat. You could not drop a building on him if you tried, and a few have tried. Even then, I am not sure you would kill the little shit."
"Yeah, I got that impression," Pickle froze the words out of her mouth before she realised. "I should still apologise to him."
"No, hun. Never apologise to that old fool. He was napping, but he still managed to get out of the way quickly enough. Truth, he could have caught you."
Pickle's vision slowly coming into focus, she saw the countryside over Sarah's shoulder whooshing past in a blur of motion. The gentle click-clack of the tracks as the train made a gentle swaying motion as it flowed along metal stock towards the true Wilderness. She used the awkward pause in the conversation to look around and take in her surroundings.
Scraps and Ka were near the front of the train, tending to the Spin Drive. The engine now purring at full speed. Scraps were secured by waistline to the drive, checking dials, twisting knobs and tapping readings. While Ka was on one of those strange bicycles sunk into the floor having a gentle cycle, the strange sight made it look like he was moving the entire world with his slow pedalling. Disjointed from the speed of the train pulling itself along at high speed. Truly an absurd sight of she picture the strange orc going for a cycle through the countryside.
Shaking the vision out of her head, she noticed that Gunther and the small clerk, North something was his name what a rude little man, were both leaning on the railing talking to each other. She still couldn't quite get the little man's rude introduction to her and to be talking to a legend like Gunther with no regard. Speaking of rude...
Pulling her vision back, she looked behind her, then to Sarah, who just had a single finger pointing up. She tilted her head back for a moment, feeling it swim to see Malcolm perched. The strange man was sitting in a strange, near birdlike pose, knees akimbo, looking down at her, his long heavy coat being gently pushed by the wind. The heavy armoured plates sewn into the fabric fighting the fierce wind. He was looking down at her pointy hat tilted, wrapped fabric flailing in the wind and dark goggles hiding any semblance of human eyes.
He seemed to be judging or inspecting her from on high. It was hard to tell with no skin showing or eyes to judge. He didn't move a single muscle like a grotesque scarecrow or gargoyle waiting for the sun to set. She knew this was his fault. She wasn't certain how but she was certain of it. Unable to continue looking at the grim spectre, uncomfortable with the stillness of form, she looked away to her left.
A greater contrast could not have been struck. While Malcolm could be made carved from an old trunk, cast in iron or hewn from stone, the sight to her side could only be expressed in thick oils flowing with life on canvas.
Sarah was framed and highlighted by thick shoulder-length red hair. The curls bounced and swam in the windy open air of the train. A loose hair tie holding it roughly in form as the wind blew it as a banner for all the world to see in its vibrancy and life. She was kneeling on both knees next to her but currently scowling up at Malcolm with an angry pout on her face which somehow was the funniest thing. She had such a serious and educated manner but behaved like an angry older sister to the man.
The dichotomy was carried to her clothes as she wore faded black cotton pants, splattered with paint. At least she hoped it was paint. It was too colourful to be fluids, and its accidental nature made it look natural. The printed fabrics or pre-distressed fashion she sometimes saw in the club manufactured European bourgeoisie fashionista piece always got it wrong. Artistic randomness and natural randomness are easily spotted.
The true chaos of life looked planned out and patterned like someone handing out karma tokens or enacting a pre-planned tragic comedy by which you would be screwed. Dice didn't roll equally on all sides. Coin flips didn't have to work out even. True chaos was all cows and shit, never predictable, always messy and underfoot.
This extended to her entire outfit, not thrown together out of no care like Scraps maniac fashion sense which seemed to strive for noise but instead a mishmash and jumble. Her red hair and paint splat black pants were offset by a white blouse with neat little frills white buttons, except for one turquoise one which had been replaced, the hand sewing a little less neat. Black suspenders held it in check, firmly secured to the pants. The denim fabric was spotted with buttons and colourful badges of no apparent pattern. A printed silk scarf around her neck of an Asian inspired design was a mess of colours, mostly red and gold.
Sarah's freckled skin was delightfully framed by the shock of red hair. Curls tumbling down past her shoulders. Her eyes, forest green, intently scowling at Malcolm. Attached to her face off centre was a large monocular device. Perched near her left eye, it appeared to be several lenses of different focal, prismatic and coloured arrangements. A truly strange and maniacal contraption more akin to magical equipment than science.
In place of a traditional magnifying arrangement of progressive lenses were a mishmash. Mixed focal length, circles with squares, fresnel with bifocal and clear glass with coloured crystal. She even saw a prismatic bug-eye looking one in the mix, all impossible close and on individual arms. Strangely compact for the large size. A truly absurd sight now she focused on it. Pickle cleared her throat to break the doctor's intense scrutiny of the dark mage.
Sarah seemed taken back, looking back towards her. She noticed that Sarah wore dangling mismatched earings, which swung one a small vile of fluid of some kind. The other was a discarded fuse, burned out, crafted with wire into an earpiece. She also noticed a few small rings of metal running up her ears.
"Sorry, that man just riles me up. You are the patient, though you are looking much more healthy if a bit flush. Too cold?"
Pickle rubbed her hands together to get a bit more warmth in them, playing into the excuse. Though truth, she was freezing her tits. The wind of the open train was crisp in the autumn cold, even with it near high noon. "I like your style Sarah." She saw Sarah smile, what a wonderful smile.
"Now, now then, you don't want my papa running you off first thing Pumpkin." Sarah grinned with a wicked smile, comfortable pursuing the joke.
"Oh no, wouldn't want him chasing me into dangerous Wilds. I might get eaten."
"Now really, that would be bad for the tower. He would probably just shoot you out of his new cannon into the forest. He has been looking for a human tester."
Pickle found herself doing a double-take on the earnest tone and sentence.
"Wait, your dad's in the company?"
"Yeah. Chief engineer, you'll meet him and the Ball twins. Assuming he is not on one of his ranges, then Leon should be there too. They are currently holding down the fort. While we came into town course, a few of the gang are off on rotation, and well, Willy cashed out but yeah, still good to meet everyone soon."
"Delighted, I'm sure." She had no real desire to meet everyone soon. Enough trails and broken hearts had made her cautious through the years. You only had your life savings stolen once before you slept with half an eye open, and that wasn't the only thing they could try come steal. But she also knew that being openly hostile towards people was not a good tactic. People having their friendly advances rebuffed could lead to worse things than theft. So she smiled and looked at the naïve doctor.
"Yeah, sure. That sounds lovely, Doc. You know, we'll all be working together."
"That's the spirit. Well, let's see if we can get all grumpy face to apologise to you at that."
Doc stood up and looked up at Malcolm still perched. She shouted up without holding back, "Come down here and apologise, you old meanie!"
Malcolm tilted his head to the side, furthering his bird impressing. Just sort of looking at her with his dead-eye stare. How can I tell that? He's wearing fucking goggles? Doc continued her tirade.
"Come on, old cat. This instant. You come down here, and you apologise to Pumpkin. If she had fallen just a little bit differently, she could have been dead. Your lazy ass didn't even think to catch her."
Malcolm's head turned to her robotic and then tilted back in the most peculiar expression. Then in the most human display she had seen from him so far, he shrugged, resigned to his fate.
Not wanting the mage's apology or his attention. Pickle tried to think about how to get out of the situation.
"It's okay. Doc, you know I fell on him. It's kind of my fault."
"No, it's Gunther's fault. Silly old fool did not tell you to strap in and think to check you were secure." She seemed riled up and quite upset now before deflating a bit. "But that, to be fair, is somewhat my fault. Sorry I kept Scraps. I was shopping, and I got a little bit distracted. Should have kept an eye on the clock, but when she said you needed clothes well... So I suppose if anyone should be apologising to you Pumpkin. It's me."
"That's that's fine. It was really my fault. I should have been holding on."
"No, no, no allow me to get you back to the tower. And then. We will give you a proper good apology tonight. I can cook even."
That last word seemed to send a bolt of action into Malcolm as he dived down as he dived, down off the pile of boxes. Gracefully rolling and landing on the moving platform before standing up in one smooth movement. Malcolm laid his hands on Doc's shoulders as if he had been there the whole time.
His salutary voice cut through, "Now, Now. We don't need that. I'm sure we can think of some other wonderful apology that you could give to our newest little kitten."
Doc seemed insistent, "No, I went shopping. I got fresh ingredients and everything. Got a new recipe. I want to try."
"Well, if it's that special, then shouldn't you need more than one chance to get it right?"
The Doc seemed thoughtful before putting a thoughtful finger and thumb to her chin. It was then Pickle noticed that Doc's nails were done in a strange, metallic paint with an opalescent finish. The Doc seemed to think for a moment before rolling her eyes and giving in with a sigh.
"Well, tell you what, Pumpkin. I'll make one small dish for you and you only. But first, I'll get Malcolm to taste test the first attempt. You can get my second perfected dish. I don't want my apology to be anything other than perfect."
Malcolm's shoulders sagged, utterly defeated by this news. Sighing deeply before grumbling, "I wonder if Leon needs assistance again."
Seeking a way to break out of this interaction, Malcolm looked down at Pickle.
"You okay, kid? I'm pretty sure you are. You seem tough sort, but, well, I'm sorry. I didn't catch you."
"See, was that so hard?" The Doc beamed with satisfaction at Malcolm. "Now I have my stuff to pack up."
The two shared a small laugh. Doc laughed with genuine joy. Not a body shaking belly laugh but a warm chuckle that just seemed to animate her entire form and bring a sense of warmth and life to her aura. While Malcolm's laugh seemed more of a snicker like a cartoon villain cackling under his breath. His head bobbing with delight in another evil plan fulfilled. But, they appeared friendly, genuinely friendly with each other. She wouldn't think Malcolm was capable of it.
The tableau was unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her, so Pickle thought about how she could redirect the conversation. She had done as much research as she could before coming on this trip, but double-checking your facts and gaining information on the ground, kept you alive. So she turned to the informative doctor who, outside of Scraps, has been the most talkative so far. And a lot more articulate.
"You mentioned your dad and such. Is this the full complement?"
"Mmm. Yeah. Just about. Gunther is our Captain, you know that you signed up with him, big old war hero that he be and Malcolm here is his right-hand monster." Doc seemed to glance smirking at Malcolm, who shrugged before she continued, "Well, monster friend or fiend. We will go with friend. Malcolm here oversees the magical side of things. We try to keep magic and tech to a minimum. We are what is called a low emissions tower. But you are not interested in that. You were asking after people. Yeah, so Captain Gunther and his right-hand monster Malcolm."
Doc held up two fingers, counting everyone off.
"Then you got my old Papa. He's kind of the mechanic engineering. Pretty much keeps everything running. You can call them Fred."
"Or little Fred if you want to get on his good side," Malcolm interjected.
"Now, now. Do not be giving her terrible advice like that. Papa got a sense of humour, but Malcolm's humour is a bit sharp. Papa keeps the place repaired and upkeep and does any upgrades. Of course, tinker with anything and upgrade anyone. We don't really do cyber even Gunther will not let me do much with his arm, but yeah, if the tower breaks, dad will fix it. And if you break, I will fix you."
Four fingers up, the Doc played with her thumb for a bit, "Course Scraps doesn't actually work the tower. She does train supply runs and staffs the office back in the city."
"You have an office?" This was news to Pickle, who had only watched the train hub. Never seeing Gunther go to an office.
"Oh, sure, Pumpkin. That's actually where most people sign up or do business. Most people don't come up to the platform and just sign up as we're loading up. He is so disorganised I am surprised Gunther let you on. I was told you went to the station to sign up? Never heard of the like. No, I suppose you used to back in the day when things were a bit more hectic. These days we have an office. I don't think Scraps is there every day, but it's a small rental downtown. You know PO box paperwork and the like."
Doc had settled into a lecturing tone while Malcolm, bored, started loosely braiding the doctor's red hair with his gloved hands, displaying more dexterity than she expected. Doc continued on before concluding and deciding to keep the thumb up.
"And, of course, you know, we have to do the regular, business paperwork stuff. Scraps is a liaison and pretty much our lifeline back to the civilised world."
Starting her count on her other hand, thumb out, "Then Ka. Not always with us," her voice went theatrical for a moment. "But mighty Ka'shek Patoresh the warrior-poet join us on his quest." She calmly continued, "Oh, about a season a year. Sometimes two if we're short-handed. Handy orc and a tough cookie but a real sweetheart."
Lifting two more fingers, she brought the count up to eight. "The Ball twins, well again freelance with us most seasons lately, but they come and go. Got a few other regulars none on the wall at the moment."
Lifting the ninth finger and sticking her tongue out a bit, Doc seemed to think for a moment. "Oh, then there is Leon, of course. Ranger fellow lives on the wall. Leon's been at the tower since I was little. Does not come to the city, strange fellow quiet but nice. No playing cards with him for anything other than fun."
The doctor stared down at her nine fingers intently as Malcolm seemed to come to the end of his braiding project, producing two black ribbons tying Doc's braids. Then Doc held out all ten fingers towards her in glee, "And then there is you, Pumpkin. Did you sign up for the season or a company contract? Welcome aboard. It is a small group of us, but we are family."
Pickle couldn't help suppress a small involuntary shudder. Doc didn't seem to notice and converted her ten-finger count into a high ten waiting in the air. Faking enthusiasm, Pickle returned her high ten. Only ten, well, eleven people, including the Doc. She thought there would be dozens.
"I thought there would be more? I thought towers were huge forts on the wall. I mean, I knew this was a smaller tower but..." Pickle was unable to frame her question. It was Malcolm who answered the unasked question in his cold tones.
"Listen, kitten, the wall is a dangerous place we have had more and rarely fewer. People die, people leave. Few sign on. But ultimately, we are, as Sarah said, a low emission tower with not much room."
"Papa or Scraps could explain it best. Ask them." Doc piped in with enthusiasm. Malcolm gave her a pained expression at the interruption before continuing in his patient tones. No humour or mocking in his words now.
"You must know the basics. Pretty much everyone does. Magic and technology can upset things, especially in the Wilderness. So we try to keep both to a minimum."
At that moment, a shadow fell over her eyes. A gruff voice interrupted before she could ask her next question. Looking to her right, she saw Gunther standing there, arms crossed, looking down at her.
"That means I keep it to a minimum. You ok, girl?"
He looked down at her without any sense of concern in his eyes, but his face wasn't unkind. Just business, she liked business. Professionalism, she could deal with that.
"Sir, yes, sir."
"You own stake, but obey orders. I like people to understand the why when there is time. Short answer. Low emissions keep us alive. Long answer well..."
Gunther seemed to pause for a second, his iron claw once again scratching the underside of his short beard. The man of legend was not given to long speeches in the flesh. His behaviour was different from the hero on the holos or talk shows from decades ago. He seemed conflicted and uncomfortable, he continued.
"It's about money. Towers are paid seasonal based on distance and length of wall protected. Bonus kill and research commissions sweeten the pot. Some towers work different to ours. Scout towers, slaughter boxes, RnD bunkers and the like. But I found the safest way to keep everyone alive and paid. Guard the wall, stay quiet, and we don't see much action. Don't poke the bear. Keep everyone south safe. Mostly."
Pickle ran the strategy through her head. It made perfect sense to her the tower operated much the same way she had stayed alive in the mines, on the streets, hell even in the club. What did it matter if you took risks for that big shiny? Chances are you would die getting it, or someone would kill you for it later. No much better to scrap what you could and steal a small bit of sparkle now and then. She liked it, but a voice in the back of her mind nagged at her.
But what about the waves of violent monsters crashing against the wall. Does this keep the monsters away? Is everyone truly safe? Even keeping a low profile, she still had to fight off the occasional street creep.
"What if you have to fight?"
"We'll get a few stragglers and smaller incidents. And for those, we have a range of weapons. We use mostly pneumatics, hydro sprung and some chem. Pretty much anything old Fred can come up with that can kill and doesn't flare too big."
Gunther's eyes seemed to take a mental inventory of the canisters, crates and cargo. Glancing at the Spin Drive, his eyes flicked towards the small clerk still leaning on the railing. With a note of bitterness in his voice, he concluded, "Worst case scenario, we got some plasma in reserve. Nightmare sitrep, we can always call down the light of Heaven. Expensive as hell and wipes out several seasons profit. Course cheaper than a breach penalty, and well lives come first."
She knew from holos and fic that the giant orbital defence assist was a port of last resort, and there were actually a few other options that could be called for. Assuming those slick action fics, Dark Defensive one through twelve hadn't lied to her. Though she was fairly certain no one on the wall had ever ridden a dragon in defence of humanity. So maybe some actual questions would be good.
"What about Drop Squads? Sir," she asked cautiously, belatedly adding the sir onto the end. She had always loved the image of the brave heroes dropping in on grav shot arriving at the last moment to save the day. Gunther grunted.
"Those flyboys? Mostly private. Corp or insurance. When they come, they enter hot and heavy. If they come in. They call doom drop, then they have no obligation to drop. You call, cowards cluck, and then you're holding the bag." Bitter tones entered his voice. Gunther paused for a full second before continuing on. "Then you are calling for Heaven's help regardless. Besides, they cost a lot of money, almost a season's taking for us. Money will do us no good if we are dead, so we have options. But well..."
The gruff man shrugged his shoulders. Not a full shrug loaded with uncertainty of youth but a little confident acknowledgement of the fates and the cruelty of life. Nod to fate. Barely enough to notice. Doc's voice, now a little sad, cut into the conversation.
"The wall is run pretty thin these days, Papa says. Even the big corp towers are battling to hold their own some days. And of course, if we surge." Doc paused briefly, shutting her eyes and shaking away a bad thought. Her braids swinging side to side in the cold wind. "You are not to worry about that Pumpkin? The surge has not happened in our section for ages. Not since we stopped poking the bear." Doc's voice shook at the last word.
Gunther grunted, and Malcolm put his hands on Doc's shoulders again in a light hug. There was a conversation here, and Pickle wasn't part of it. An awkward moment of silence stretched for what felt like ages, though it was probably only moments. Time was funny, real or standard.
"That's the reason I came back here," Gunther interrupted the moment. "Malcolm ritual time, and girl, I need you to take off your pants."
Doc shocked spluttered with outrage, "Now see here, you may have Captain's total writ, but that's just not right. Asking a lady to..."
Malcolm's snickers cut Doc short. Pickle hated that man so much. Malcolm was on the edge of a full evil cackle, and Doc was wordlessly indignant as the stoic Gunther looked on non-plussed. The Captain's clause meant he could do anything, right up to and, including killing her for the safety of the wall. Still, she hadn't expected this.
Doc glared furiously at Malcolm, who now collapsed to the floor in a full laughing fit. Doc was more concerned for her than she seemed to be. Well, worse things happened at sea, resigning herself. She started removing her top when suddenly Gunther's voice came out quickly, embarrassed though more frustrated than flustered.
"Nothing like that girl. God, you are child! No Scraps told me your pants smelled." At this Malcolm was wheezing on the floor. Gunther continued more calmly, "She got you some new ones."
Her fancy pants didn't smell! They were the most modern meta-material synth. Self-cleaning with irradiance and sculpted print. Hell, these were the height of fashion in New Hope City. She had been assured as much while getting the previous owner out of them. Why only thing better was true meta-material or smart fab... she groaned internally and facepalmed.
Meta-material was tech! Or magic, to be honest, she wasn't a hundred percent certain not having bought them herself. Scraps had said they would need to be swapped. For the second time today, she felt her cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. She never blushed and now twice in one day. It wasn't helped that Malcolm noticing her facepalm, was now coughing on the floor between wheezing laughs. She joined in with Doc's angry glares at the mage before they both made eye contact and started laughing a bit themselves.
Shortly after, a small parcel was produced. A set of new clothes all from natural fabrics wrapped in a length of cloth. The package was sealed with a small blob of wax with a shop crest pressed in. They all looked handmade rather than machine cut. That is to say, they were sewn by a machine but lacked the straight edge line of a textile factory and instead had the slight, almost imperceptible wobble of a person guiding a sewing machine. You learned to tell machine lines from human, or at least living hands, she thought, thinking back to old Lady Bloom, the pixie who did costumes for Queenie.
It seemed lacking her input Doc and Scraps had opted for fairly neutral choices, and she was impressed Scraps had eyed her measurements so well in their brief conversation. Wrapping a length of cloth around her like a large towel to give her a moment of privacy to change. She changed into the new pants at the back of the train.
Immediately she felt the cold chill of the wind, and the fabric was scratchy. Nothing like her fancy pants. Now changed into appropriate attire, she came forward, pants in hand, turning to Gunther and asking, "What is the ritual?"
"Well, kitten, " Malcolm's oily voice interjected, "It's not THE ritual, but a particular magical ritual. As you know, the mage school... or may not being from the sticks. I suppose I have taken you on as my apprentice. Well, this is not the time to explain all the complexities, but the School of Magic I follow is ritualistic and formulaic."
She found herself drawn into the explanation as Malcolm's creepiness faded away, and he got a bit more human in his motion explaining his craft.
"Rituals, of course, being the most powerful format. This particular ritual, the crew lovingly calls the scrub and clean, but really it's a balancing ritual. You see, whenever magic is moved about a place, peoples auras mix, or you just pump a ton of heat, radiation or directed energy flow like electric well, it leaves a mark. Fingerprints or gradients like how you can make a metal magnetic using coiled powered wire or something left in the sun grows warm. Fingerprints."
Malcolm pulled out a few small rods of metal. About the thickness of a chopstick but a third the length. Spreading the shiny rods on his palm, fingering each as he continued.
"We all know iron stops, silver streams, gold eternal, copper carries, and tin taints. Well, truth be told, most materials have alchemic reactions, but metals, in particular, pure heavy metals are notorious for holding or blocking fingerprints. Wood can be tough, too, depending. Though alchemical alignment class, this is not."
His fingers danced in the air before tapping her helmet, then pinging his gloves metal tips on the rim of her mining helmet. Making a ringing sound. The long-drawn tone seemed to ring unnaturally long in her ears.
"Metal magical, magnetic or well-exposed will sing to anything with the ears for it. And the ritual is to calm and quiet and things down. We like to do it. Not too close to the wall because the ritual makes magical noise itself and draws attention, but there's no point doing it while we're still in the station. Because well, the full Spin and the emissions from the city. Taking a shower before swimming in sewage. Not to mention the city doesn't like large-scale magic performed inside of it."
Malcolm completing his lecture, sighed and placed the rods back into a small pocket before inspecting the glistening fabric of her folded pants. Rubbing the material between his fingers. "Well, better get this stowed. Cleansing rituals can ruin batteries, tech, weaker magic and the like. Or worse, react. We don't want to make your day even more interesting kitten."
She was beginning to loathe that nickname, but the information was interesting. She'd never really talk to a mage about magic. Magic was magic. The magic users she had all met, present company included, all creeps revealing in their mystery. They were more interested in showing off or discussing their greatness and how they could make the tequila sparkle. It never tasted the same. Once Queenie had lured in a whole bunch of them from some magical conference in town. The club was enchanted all week, booze tasted funny, and bottles exploded randomly for a month. Not to mention all the breakage or pranks. Oh, and of course, how they could make any night magical. Several workers had caught the nasty case of regrets. Queenie had to get in a hedge witch. Fucking creeps.
Gunther interrupted, "Get that stowed. Malcolm, get prepped." With that order, Malcolm walked to the back of the train pulling out a large book from a bag. Gunther went to the front with Doc. Doc climbed onto the bike next to Ka and started peddling, saying something to Scraps, who unclipped her safety line grabbed something and made a beeline for Pickle.
Scraps came over with a little metal case with a combination lock in hand. Spring in her step as she walked with the motion of the train. It was battered but looked newer than most things on the train.
"So soz bout the depart. No time to flog the stuff you gave me, but Gun said it would be good in a case. Grabbed dis one for ya. You can shove your shiny shorts in it. Codes 1234, but you can switch it."
Scraps held out the case and popped it open. The inside was lined with shiny red fabric on which her pad, needle gun and stun ring lay. She placed the folded pants on, topped concealing the contents and closed the case making a mental note to change the code later.
"Keep it private. No one steal from you, but bit of private portant when living in tin can." Scraps smiled, "I take pad battery out and disconnect comms so no soft call home."
"Thanks, Scraps, I appreciate this," and strangely, she found she meant it. She had taken a liking to the crazy multicoloured grease monkey with her honest face and simple manner.
"I go now make the engine free. Malcolm make it all go wobble wobble. If Spin not free well wobble wobble bang crash and no go."
All around her, everyone seemed to be making preparations. Malcolm had a heavy metal bound tomb on his lap tracing words with his finger and writing down things on a spare piece of paper. Though it wasn't a crisp white printer or notebook paper, she was used to but rather brown and thicker with a limp quality.
Gunther was fussing with a screwdriver on his arm. Using an oil rag to make the process go smoother. Ka was reading a small book, well in truth, a regular-sized book, but it looked tiny in his hand while pedaling on the cycle next to Doc. Finally, she noticed the one figure still in all the commotion, the clerk or guest leaning on the railing at the front of the train looking in the direction of travel.
Thinking back, she didn't recall Doc mentioning his place in the company. Was he new like her? She hoped not. She remembered how rude the silly man was. Northcoast or something was his name. Virgin Northland or some such. She walked up to him, the cold June air crisp with the promise of winter rushing all around as she moved to the exposed front. No boxes or cargo cutting the wind. The train was really just an open platform on the rails, exposed to the sky. She leaned on the cold rail next to him, taking in the scenery.
The signs of winter were all around. She saw the tan countryside. Sand and brush with low veld stretched out in all directions. Even now, the trees green were tall and thin, bare-bones skeletons puffed with green clustered to give a sense of flourishing life. She had seen forests in paintings, holos or fic, but they always looked wrong to her. Too verdant and lush like a garden, not like the wild, she knew of hot sun and sand with grass being a patchy thing in places and tall where it grew. When the big cats and lumbering creatures roamed.
She picked out an old baobab tree with its thick trunk and umbrella leaves. The old ugogo of the bush or ambuya, as some locals around here, called the trees. They were ancient. Some she was told were over 2000 years old. Everyone knew they were places of old magic.
Off in the distance, she saw the stack of stones indicating an old Kopje. The mix of natural formation and ancient construction were considered places of power as well. She knew to avoid them, and she thought she saw some great beasts sunning themselves on the stone in the noon sun. These castles of stone, most small stone outcrops some ancient castles were not known by one name collectively in the old tongues, but Kopje was the word used in the city to describe them. Though in the bright noonday sun with the cold air rushing in her face, she saw only the beauty of such places. It was hard to link them to dark stories and dire warnings told in soldiers bars and whore houses. Places to give grown warriors night terrors and make them fear the dark.
Looking down at the twin rails of steel below them laid on top of broken and patchwork tarmac. The old road was barely visibly echoing a time long gone, the rails a statement of purpose lonely in their slimline cut through the relatively tame outdoors, not the true Wilderness yet but echos of it were present. She didn't know anyone who was truly comfortable in the countryside. It's not that people had widespread agoraphobia. Some people did like a quiet life. It's just isolation now came with time slip. The mind played tricks on itself. Then, of course, monsters stalked the wide-open spaces.
She glanced at the little man wanting to ask so many questions. Where did he fit into all of this? She decided to come out and ask. She was about to just ask when the man pressed up to his gold-rimmed spectacles and straightened up. He pulled on his jacket and dealt with any creases before turning to her and saying, "Well, it looks like Mr Malcini is ready to perform. I must attend to my equipment, good day Ms Pickles."
Doffing his hat, he left her there as Malcolm walked forward and took his place. Book no longer in hand, he held the piece of paper and a slim rod of tin tall as he was. He placed himself firmly in front of the train dead centre. Turning to her, he said in a cold voice, "Run along now kitten, you don't want to be too close."
Glancing briefly at the page, which looked to be more algebraic formula. Doodles and short passages of numbers and words with strange symbols scribbled in the spaces to form what looked to be a demonic cheat sheet. She rushed back towards Scraps and Doc, now drinking quickly from warm cups of tea. Scraps wordlessly handed her one. It was warm to the touch, and the gentle heat was comforting.
Malcolm stretched out his arms wide and began trailing his fingers in the air. She recognised some of the patterns from the piece of paper. The motion was fluid but precise down to the exact dancing of his fingers as his voice incanted in a melody of tombstone timbre. Forming a harmonic with itself in the most unnatural way. The air folded and glistened. She could feel the folds in space more than see them directly. There was a prickle as she sensed the magic flowing, the sensation even stronger now than the cold wind blowing over her.
Finally, Malcolm flung his arms wide, stretching the complex web of folded space trailing furious energy. The wires of power took a new shape, a performer revealing it was the three hearts all along. The flush of power travelled on the wind, and she felt a shiver journey through her. She knew then on some subconscious level this was not the end but merely the start as the spell in place Malcolm now poured his personal power into the contraption to power the mechanism he had set.
The wind washed over the train, and wherever air hit resistance, tumbling and twisting around things, there was a halo or glisten of rainbow space. Not the broken frayed edges and knots of a shuttle soaring into orbit. Or even the grav lines left by heavy traffic in the cities or the murky clouds of drop troops falling into the soup. The streets swimming in ankle high distortions from grav trolleys and float cars. They all felt dirty, like seeing sewage in the air. This felt like water flowing crystal clear in a mountain stream. The purity was so crisp the only sight of it was the subtle bending of light as eddies formed in the current.
Prismatic rainbows danced more strongly on the metal. The large spin drive, still humming and purring but not roaring as before, shone brightly with flares of colour on all sides. She saw Doc trailing flame and Scraps leave rainbow smoke. Her own hand appeared to be swimming in currents of jade. To describe any of the trails with a single hue was to describe a painting with a single line. It was a dance in space, every moment different as it danced over her goose-bumped flesh.
It was then she noticed the cold of earlier was seeping into her bones. Like the wind was cutting harshly across her skin, stealing any semblance of heat. She felt her soul push out against it, the warmth of the tea spreading out along her arms. Just when she thought she would freeze to death, the streamers of prismatic colour broke and sparkled into glittered dust scattering on the wind and into the landscape carried away from them.
The glitter did not fly with the wind but was carried by another force and spread out behind them in an even fan flying high and wide, leaving a backscatter of sparkle. She let out the breath she had been holding to see not a hint of warmth in the air. Everything felt balanced.
The silence was suddenly broken by the sudden return of wind and the clunk clunk of the rails beneath them. She felt at peace with the land in perfect harmony with the train and everyone on it. For the first time, she felt like she was in the right place.
Gunther pressed past her with the largest rifle she had even seen announcing in his booming voice.
This is an ongoing web novel updated every Thursday. I really hope you enjoy it, this is my first attempt but I've spent a lot of time in this world, over two decades. Running roleplaying campaigns, writing comics and creating stories so it feels really natural to tell a story in this world.